“Baal sabke kaale hai” (All of you have black hair), quipped Sarfraz Ahmed as he sat alongside Rohit Sharma, Angelo Mathews, Mashrafe Mortaza, Asghar Afghan and Anshy Rath at the captains’ press conference to unveil the Asia Cup in Dubai on Friday. It elicited laughter among the audience.
Sarfraz was just getting started with his wisecracks. All six men were asked of the Asia Cup’s importance looking at next year’s World Cup. Mathews spoke of Sri Lanka’s drive to improve fitness, Rohit talked of the opportunity to identify missing chinks in their batting and Mashrafe mentioned lessons learnt from their Caribbean tour. Sarfraz just laughed and said “Rohit has answered for me. Same thing.” Then when a question was posed to Mathews about the Bangladesh-Sri Lanka rivalry and the infamous Naagin dance episode, Sarfraz and Rohit whispered into each other’s ears and had a quiet laugh. This was the other side of a hard-nosed competitor, one who is often in the ears of his bowlers and fielders, one who shrieks in frustration if a plan fails. Here he was calm and unflustered.
And so was his team. The 42-degree heat must now feel like nothing to Pakistan, so much that even as all the other captains admitted to “not feeling too pleasant”, Sarfraz laughed it off like he was totally comfortable in the furnace. After all, they live and train here for close to six months in a year – and that is besides the work they do in the PSL.
Pakistan spent 90 minutes just doing fitness drills on their first day on tour, before diving into specifics. Sandwiched between the two was a small drinks break, where the joker in Sarfraz emerged. There was generous pulling of legs, banter and jokes on how six-footer Shaheen Afridi “second floor se bowling karta hai” (bowls as if from the second floor).
In amidst it, Sarfraz was also serious in directing training sessions, often in constant touch with the support staff. They welcomed a new member in Grant Bradburn, the fielding coach, who for the last four years has heralded Scotland’s rise. Grant Flower bhai is almost like a local, nodding at all the chatter, even if it’s in Urdu, while Mickey Arthur, a stern man at the best of times, is relaxed and amused by the mood in the camp.
These are signs of a confident team that is aware of what they’re out to achieve. These are signs of a team as relaxed as they can possibly be. The infamous rifts and team harmony issues that have been troublesome in the past are at an arm’s length. There’s purpose, there’s intent to their training.
Sarfraz knows he’s perhaps at the peak of his powers. It was only last June, after the Champions Trophy loss to India in the group game, that he fired Pakistan up with some “harsh words” and took them all the way to the title. In Misbah-ul-Haq, Sarfraz had seen a statesman lead his team through thick and thin. While their personalities are very different, the captaincy traits have been similar.
One of the first things Sarfraz admits to have told the selectors was not to “be influenced by short-term results”. Pakistan went on to beat India in the Champions Trophy final, and by the end of the campaign, talks of rift and not all being well within the camp had moved over to the Indian team, when it emerged that captain Virat Kohli and coach Anil Kumble had a falling out. Sarfraz looks back at that win – heralded by Hasan Ali, Fakhar Zaman and Mohammad Amir – as a pivotal moment in Pakistan’s limited-overs fortunes in recent times. Not long prior to that, they were ranked eighth in the world, with Sarfraz insisting they had nothing to lose. Heck, they had barely managed to qualify for the Champions Trophy, one they held aloft at The Oval.
“When I became the captain before Champions Trophy, we had a very young team. Our job was to give confidence to the youngsters,” he said. “The way we won the tournament was a big boost for us. After that we had a meeting with the selectors and coaching staff and we went with the same team. We didn’t make many changes. Young players like Fakhar Zaman, Hasan Ali, Shadab Khan and Faheem Ashraf have responded well. They are getting better day by day. That’s why our one-day cricket has improved.”
Sarfraz has backed his young players. Shadab, for example, has been allowed to carve an identity even with senior legspinner Yasir Shah still around. Faheem has been empowered to be the lower-order hitter Pakistan are looking for after Shahid Afridi’s retirement. Fakhar has been told to play his game and not be influenced by a few failures. Imam-ul-Haq’s position has always attracted a few sniggers because of his famous uncle Inzamam, who also happens to be chief selector. And so when Imam says “it’s not my fault who my uncle is” and “I want to show the Zimbabwe series isn’t a one off”, he doesn’t come across as arrogant. The confidence stems from being told he isn’t under trial. After all, he has four ODI centuries in nine matches. It’s not Imam’s fault that three of those were in Zimbabwe.
The Champions Trophy win was followed by victories in UAE across formats against Sri Lanka. They had a shocker of a New Zealand tour, but which team travels well these days? They returned to winning ways by shellacking Zimbabwe and while they were hardly challenged on tour, it provided young players game time. In the absence of A tours – they rarely happen for Pakistan – for logistical reasons and expensive overhead costs to schedule them in UAE, exposure is key, even if on low-key tours. And they’ve grabbed it with both hands.
Sarfraz is clear this is their launch pad to next year’s World Cup, but doesn’t want his team to be consumed by the thought of playing under pressure because of that. He wants them to embody the same spirit they showed during the Champions Trophy; the spirit that made win a tournament many thought they wouldn’t even qualify for.